The Path to Freedom: How the Education of Frederick Douglass Helped Change the Nation

By Anderson, Amy | Success, August 2009 | Go to article overview

The Path to Freedom: How the Education of Frederick Douglass Helped Change the Nation


Anderson, Amy, Success


Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in February 1818, the abolitionist, editor and civil rights leader later known as Frederick Douglass was the son of a slave named Harriet Bailey. They lived on Holmes Hill Farm on Maryland's eastern shore, which was owned by Aaron Anthony. Douglass's father was an unknown while man. At the age of 6, Douglass was taken away from his grandmother, who raised him while his mother worked the fields. Douglass joined his three siblings to work as a field hand on a nearby plantation. The slave children were led cornmeal mush in a trough and given only long linen shirts to wear, winter and summer.

When he was 8, Douglass received his first pair of pants and traveled to Baltimore to work for Hugh Auld, Anthony's relative. Auld's wife. Sophia, regularly read the Bible aloud and gave Douglass lessons in the alphabet. When Auld discovered the lessons, he was irate, stating that a slave who could lead would be uncontrollable and could forge papers for his escape. Sophia slopped the lessons, but Douglass learned from Auld's intense reaction that education was his path to freedom.

"Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read."

Working on his own, Douglass learned the alphabet and made friends with poor white children who taught him leading fundamentals in exchange for pieces of bread. He saved money and bought his first book: The Columbian Orator. In it, Douglass read and later memorized speeches and essays about democracy, courage and freedom.

When Anthony died in 1826, what remained of Douglass's family was divided up as the owner's properly. His beloved grandmother, too old to work, was put out of her cabin and sent into the woods to die. Douglass's determination to become free increased. At 16, he was sent hack to work the fields for the infamous slave breaker Edward Covey. After a year of regular healings and near starvation, Douglass was handed over to another farmer.

Douglass started an illegal school for blacks and began to plot his escape. He was caught and jailed but soon went hack to work for Hugh Auld in Baltimore, apprenticing at a shipyard. He studied with free blacks and met Anna Murray, a free black woman who was very religious and supportive of Douglass's ambitions to free himself. The couple was married in 1838.

"No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck."

On Sept. 3, 1838, Douglass escaped slavery by posing as a sailor and ended up in New Bedford, Mass., with his new bride. He worked at a shipyard and changed his name to Frederick Douglass to throw off slave catchers. In 1839, the Douglasses had the first of five children.

In New Bedford, Douglass attended church and abolitionist meetings, continued his self-education and read the Liberator, a newspaper edited by William Lloyd Garrison, the leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society. ''The paper became my meat and drink," Douglass late wrote. "My soul was set all on fire."

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In 1841, Douglass saw Garrison speak and a few days later gave his first speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society's annual convention. Garrison employed Douglass on the spot, and Douglass accompanied the leader and other prominent speakers on lecture tours for the next several years. Despite being mocked by pro-slavery mobs, physically attacked and thrown off railway cars, Douglass knew he had found his calling.

"Through my many speeches about justice, and through my newspaper and other writings, I discovered that the power of the word is the best means to bring about permanent positive changes, both for myself and others.

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